What’s gone wrong with work – 2

back to part 1 – what I think has gone wrong with work

On here at the moment I spend far more time on breaking free of the rat race than on living intentionally. Part of that is for journalistic reasons. Pick up any paper and most of the articles are about stuff that has gone wrong  it gives a more dramatic story. It is also the area which takes up most of my time at the moment.

So is work getting worse or not?

My job is getting worse. It has been getting less intellectually interesting since the year 2000. From an income point of view this is somewhat offset by me rising up the greasy pole. It’s become more stressful all the time. Some of that is because some old clauses in the pension scheme make it expensive to have compulsory redundancies, so HR is trying to bully the weaker people out with nasty perfomance management system abuses and buy others out with voluntary redundancy.

This is an enervating environment to work in, but is understandable; the company clearly has too many people and would dearly love to replace them with Indian IT guys at a lower cost. So I feel the chill winds directly and am only shielded somewhat by the idealism of the people that negotiated the pension scheme terms in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m lucky enough to be old enough that soon I will have enough to be out and free of this rat-race.

Obviously my vision is coloured by my own experiences, and heck, it’s my blog and if my experience of work is that it’s going to the dogs then that’s what I’ll be ranting about. However I do generalise about work getting worse, and Monevator is quite right to pull me up on that. So, after considering the issues let’s take a look at the whole related areas of education and work –

What’s gone wrong with school

I don’t have children so I don’t have personal experience of this. However, the damage that has been done to the qualifications systems by moving away from norm referenced grading means that you can’t tell bright kids from dumb ones. That’s good for the self-esteem of the dumb ones, but probably not so good for the UK’s competitiveness. This crabby old git from the QCA describes the UK exams system as diseased. Call me old-fashioned, but I also always like to see people leave school able to read and write and use a calculator to add up a bill. I don’t expect them to be able to write deathless prose, solve quadratic equations or know what Gauss’ theorem means, but you need some basic skills to survive in an industrial society.

What’s gone wrong with university

University degrees are worth a lot less now than they were 30 years ago, but they cost students a lot more. How did that happen? We bottled the tough task of telling dumb people they were dumb in the name of equality. That meant we couldn’t tell which were the clever ones that would give the taxpayer a return on investment, so we said let everybody pay.

There’s a recurring theme here. If you want to treat everyone equally, then by definition you can’t identify the bright from the dim. That’s fine if the aim of education is to build students’ self esteem. That’s bad if the aim is to target scarce resources at the able so they can invent and discover new technologies and stuff, or create inspirational designs. It’s also, incidentally, bad if you want to target other scarce resources at the dim to enable them to make the bst they can of themselves. If no child is left behind, then no child will get ahead.

On the upside, nowadays university is mainly about finding the money. It appears you don’t have to be that smart to go to uni. On the downside, you now start people off in their working lives with more unsecured personal debt than I have ever borrowed in my life. Is it any wonder that people get personal finance wrong? When I borrowed £3k to buy a car early in work it scared the hell out of me and I focused on paying that back ASAP, it was gone in less than a year. If I already had 30k of personal debt at the time it would look so huge in comaprison to my outgoings I’d go whatever and borrow the £3k and not be scared by it.

In the past you had to be bright to get into university.

Monevator explains

The small number of 50- to 60-somethings who were educated in the grammar school system after passing their 11+ and who went on to university were cut from entirely different intellectual cloth to the great mass of the near-50% of students that now enjoy higher education.


All students from across the eras were not created equally. The 11+ passer was the elite achiever of his (or more rarely her) generation – the equivalent of today’s multiple A* student who aspires to earn a fortune in law or The City or medicine. And if anything, those that climbed out of the comprehensive school system were even brighter.

So students are getting a different deal nowadays – less work needed, fewer rewards in the end and more debt. Me, I’d take the old version of harder work needed and no debt, but then I would say that wouldn’t I, it worked for me. The 93% of my school cohort that didn’t get to uni might feel differently, though as I recall it they were too busy driving fast cars and pulling girls to be that bothered – there were jobs waiting for them, remember. Other European countries have the same system we used to have, such as the German numerus clausus.

I haven’t got great experience working with Gen Y’ers because my company takes on very few graduates – they’re trying to reduce numbers so this is only to be expected. Monevator seems to find a lack of work ethic there

chimes with my own experiences. Well, I find originality/smart thinking much more than 10% of the time – maybe 30% – but it’s too often outweighed by their ‘what are you doing for me?’ attitude. They seem to take an employer as the next step of their academic career, rather than at the point where they start paying back (for their mutual benefit, of course)

I think I’ll have to charge him with being more of a crabby old git than me there. In my first company I was a cocky young pup, educating the digital design engineer in a troubleshooting meeting that the reason we were having grief was that a virtual earth input is a low impedance, the clue was in the name, rather than the high impedance he thought it was. This is an issue in analogue electronics, not digital electronics, so he wasn’t necessarily to know that, but I was a complete and utter tw*t. I was right, but in the wrong way. I didn’t quite understand why when I related this story to my mother she suggested that might have been unwise. The qualities than make a decent engineer are not a million miles from those that make a sociopath, particularly when combined with the arrogance of youth. Never did work out why it seemed hard to get ahead in that firm, but I left after 9 months so it didn’t matter 😉 I also wasn’t that dependable, and the Television Centre bar was the location of many a long lunch. There at least I was taking a lead from the old hands…

I think the their ‘what are you doing for me?’ attitude goes with the patch of being young. They also think they know it all, which is different from knowing it all. When young folk stop thinking they know it all and that the world owes them a living, the human race is doomed 🙂

What’s gone wrong with scientific and technical jobs

In startups and small to medium companies, probably not too much. We’ve got more of these than people give credit for, because a lot of them are B2B and therefore tucked away in anonymous industrial estates. I’ve only had experience of these as a corporate customer and consultant once I left my first company way back in the 1980s. Obviously job security ain’t all that in small companies and startups. In big companies, well, line up the usual suspects

  • bureaucratic management
  • death of leadership
  • outsourcing to lower-wage economies
  • ossification due to the above

My company has peculiar issues of its own, but looking at what happened to other great British engineering companies many of the pathologies are replicated. Something very nasty has happened to the management of multinational companies, it has become sytematized and dehumanised. In the past they offered great career paths, training, less of the dead mens shoes progression of small firms and chances to job-hop for the ambitious. Now they are front-ends for outsourcing jobs. Project management is the thing to go for to get places in vaguely technical fields there.

What’s gone wrong with manual jobs

Most of them disappeared! That’s a bugger if you’re academically challenged. I fully agree with Monevator that a lot of these were crap, but when I part company with him is viewing the absence of a job as a better option to a crap one. It’s nice to at least have the choice.

What’s gone wrong with skilled manual jobs

they’ve largely disappeared. We don’t fix or custom build things where we can avoid it, commercial off the shelf is king.

Work in general has gone wrong in some areas across the board

  • pensions – largely gone in the private sector
  • job security – what’s that?
  • training – employers want to hire in from abroad rather than train graduates

This litany of lament applies to regular jobs where you become an employee. Against that should be set the vastly improved opportunities for the self-motivated to set out their stall and sell their skills as freelancers and consultants. This employment pattern suits the self-motivated, the talented and the entrepreneurial among us – computers, the internet and better communications generally allow these guys to compete with the big guys for a fraction of the cost.

Unfortunately, they are at the extremes of the bell curve. Most people don’t want the stress, they want an employer to deal with the risks. So the opportunities are opening up massively for a minority, while closing off for the majority. I’m not at the extreme of that bell curve, and I’ve been a company director for more than a decade before packing it in because I hated the sales side of things.

So the overall problems with work is that the opportunities for the majority of averagely skilled Brits are fast disappearing, big companies are ossifying into shell companies for outsourced workers elsewhere, UK unemployment is well into double digits when you factor in all the not economically active adults of working age. Monevator comes across as a bright and above all, highly entrepreneurial chap and is probably drowning in opportunities, but I’m not sure that experience is so widespread. It’s the people that would once upon a time have staffed the office typing pool, the auto shops and the book-keeping department that are taking the shaft, and they are going to be bored and very pissed off at the lack of jobs.


11 thoughts on “What’s gone wrong with work – 2”

  1. Can’t really disagree. You’ve identified a personal bias — fair enough — and I daresay it holds for a lot of the UK and elsewhere. It ties in with the baby boomer debate (Willets etc.) and the plight of the young. If you are young, male and not academic, it’s tough.

    You are dead right on exams. I think schoolkids work as hard or as little as ever they did, but bunching all the vaguely academic ones into A and B is stupid. -SG


  2. I am current really lucky that currently I work in a management role for an SME but have a very hands on and varied role, a mixture of manual and desk work.

    I’m in my 30s but have a wide circle of friends from their teens to their fifties. Many of the Gen X and Y young people are suddenly facing long term unemployment and/or blocks to their careers / ambitions.

    The bulk of them in their 20s to their early 40s are not taking it too well – groups of friends are drifting apart, there’s relationship breakups, people turning to drugs and crime, all sorts. its even worse in the rural villages than in towns such as Ipswich, and is also causing obvious racial tension as the immigrant communities are also competing for the remaining jobs – and winning!

    this the sort of thing going on in our region (and these lads aren’t exactly youths)



  3. I wouldn’t say younger folk totally lack the work ethic. The bulk of them *would* much rather be doing something than sitting on their arses. Even many drugs are only popular because they make the mind more active.

    what a fair few younger people do lack today is attention to detail, an ability to cope with setbacks and bad news, and basic engineering / literacy / numeracy skills and worst of all a desire to learn. For this I do blame wider society, particularly the false optimism imported from the US and the marginalisation of practical skills that ermine has mentioned many a time.

    I’ve noticed this because my lifestyle and appearance (a single male without kids and living alone who looks considerably younger than his real age) meant that for a fair few years I got away with a bit of a “Peter Pan” lifestyle, going out clubbing and to raves etc as if I were still in my teens.

    so recently I was hanging around with a much younger crowd going to various music events. At some of them, I noticed the (high end) audio equipment was not set up as well as it should be, and later on spoke to a young lad about this…

    he agreed with me but hinted that many of the wider “crew” clearly found researching this sort of stuff “too boring/nerdy” which is a total change even from 10 years ago when I first started raving – you’d get people what worked as builders and factory workers spending hours in the library or online to learn what they didn’t pick up in high school.

    To be fair another lad in the crew had an encyclopaedic knowledge of high power loudspeakers, but I learned over the months whilst following this crew that the “geeks” were being left to do all the “hard work” whilst others slacked, which (coupled with a Police clampdown on raves) caused a lot of friction within this group of people. Bear in mind this wasn’t a boring day job, it was supposed to be a fun party atmospherwe!


  4. > what a fair few younger people do lack today is
    > attention to detail, […] and basic engineering
    > / literacy / numeracy skills and worst of all a
    > desire to learn.

    It may be other factors that are changing this. I am trying to develop a transponder at the moment, which is easily within my capabilities and skills. However, holding focus is harder in the modern world, because certainly at work I cover more ground in less depth, due the the Internet and the frequent pace of change.

    This mitigates against deep understanding and reflectiveness, the transponder is at the moment a mass of scribble on pages interleaved with other ideas where ten years ago by now it would be hardware working on the bench – but those other ideas wouldn’t exist. It’s not just the young’uns whose minds are being changed by the Net 🙂


  5. > If you are young, male and not academic, it’s tough.

    That seems to be the problem, we need jobs for these guys as well, and these have been shaken out of society 😦


  6. I do think this multi tasking is a factor but its also the quality of what else folk are doing – people cherry picking the easy “tasks” (such as someone updating facebook or playing x-box compared to checking a box of audio leads contains the right ones for the event), and a resurgence of “anti-intellectualism” compared even with the late 1990s.

    The net has also increased the expectations of instant gratification in every field – and created a “blunter” form of discussion on some online places which definitely does carry through to real life.

    I think the other point about younger folk not being able to cope as well with setbacks (a lack of resilience) is a major one – its a “small world” and relates to recent incidents involving friends its something I’d rather not discuss online but its shocked me how quickly peoples lives seem to fall apart in just 3 years – not just one person but loads…


  7. > That seems to be the problem, we need jobs for
    > these guys as well, and these have been shaken
    > out of society 😦

    a lot of lads (myself included) were *forced* into academic roles even as long ago as the 1980s.. I have just about put up with it and done OK in life but my youth is not something I’d like to repeat.

    That said if I’d completed one of the “fun” vocational courses like media production or photography (both things I’d like) there still wouldn’t be a career at the end of it so I’d be in a worse pickle with loads of debt and a sense of despair at thwarted ambitions…


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